Burning Man is a temporary city in the desert that is part camping trip, part rave, part art festival, part social experiment, part gifting economy where everyone is very friendly.
So, that’s it. That’s Burning Man in a sentence. Except clearly there are number of parts there that don’t even seem to go together. There’s also a key element of Burning Man which is that everyone who is there has a very different experience, and it is exactly the event that resists being defined in a sentence.
Here are sub-questions or corollaries to the question “What is Burning Man?” that I’ll try to help answer.
What do you mean “temporary city”?
By temporary city I mean that tens of thousands of people all go and live in the same small place, namely a random spot in the middle of the Black Rock Desert, which becomes Black Rock City for a week. It’s temporary in the sense that before the event and after the event there is nothing there—it’s just a large expanse of desert. But during the event it’s a bustling community of people engaging in every sort of activity—probably a wider range than in a normal city. And just the like the internet, it is all there at Burning Man. Though it is mainly young adults, there are young kids, and there are lots of older people. The fact that it is better described as being a “city” rather than an “event” should help give insight into the type of gathering this is.
Also part of being a temporary city means that Black Rock City has a good amount of infrastructure. The infrastructure that it does and doesn’t have also helps you really appreciate a lot of the readily available things in normal society. One of the key pieces of infrastrucutre is the roads. There is a street system where the roads are in concentric circles going from A at the center to L on the outside, and then radially there are streets going from 2pm to 10pm located at that position on a clock. It was a surprisingly new and convenient way to give locations. Our camp was at 3 and I, or another spot might be at 9:15 and G. There are lots of porta-potties there and that makes you realize what an invisibible and massive infrastructure achievement regular city plumbing is. There are medical services there, and from a friend who had to go there for an injury I heard they were significantly better and faster than what one would expect at a regular US hospital. There are a few central areas, there are some “rangers” who help in a handful of ways, and there are places where you can buy ice. There’s also some post offices for delivering mail inside and outside Black Rock City. I’m sure there are more things here I also didn’t find out about, but mainly it seems there is a lot of infrastructure work just to set up and manage the roads and bathrooms and health.
What is a gifting economy?
So gifting is one of the main principles of Burning Man, and what that means in effect is that you are always wandering around and people are giving you all sorts of things. There’s two sides to the coin—this can only happen if you bring things to gift to others. We brought some things, but we were new this year so I didn’t really realize the extent of the gifting—but receiving all these awesome and unexpected gifts really makes you want to give back to other people.
People have asked me if this is a barter system and what I had to trade for certain things. The gifting is very distinct from a barter system in that it is not a trade. Sometimes you’ll give someone something and they’ll give you something back but it isn’t meant to be an even exchange and oftentimes the thing you’ll get back is a hug. Most of the time someone gives something they don’t expect anything in return.
This is so different than anything else I’ve normally experienced that this idea by itself makes Burning Man a very unique experience.
Nope. There is a lot of music of all sorts there. There is a heavy EDM bent to a lot of the music there mostly at night, but in exploring the ins-and-outs of the city you’ll find all sorts of other music. I found a jazz tent, as well as some small bands, a girl playing ukulele and singing, there were camps with music all day, and I’m sure there were many, many more places I didn’t see.
Comparing Burning Man to a music festival would be inaccurate in the sense that music isn’t the main thing — it could be the main thing if you want it to be—but the DJs and the music is just one small part of the whole experience. The event has elements of a music festival but is a wildly different experience because it has so many elements of an alternate society.
Is Burning Man an art festival?
Nope. I mean, yes it also is an art festival in the sense that this I saw the most fascinating large-scale interactive art pieces I’ve ever seen. But here again I think calling it an art festival is much narrower than what the whole event is. Don’t get me wrong— you could come here just for the art and there would be more than enough for you to see and participate in for weeks. Most things at Burning Man have a creative element to them. The costumes are wacky and wild, the art-cars are also amazing works of art, and then there are many other art pieces of all shapes and sizes throughout the different parts of the city. Some of them, like the man, which is the huge 80+ foot statue at the center, are burned.
Art itself is a very broad term and you are likely to see many of its manifestations at Burning Man. One of the key principles people reference there is “radical self-expression” and this encourages many of the forms of art you see.
One form of the art at Burning Man is in the costumes that people wear. Some people are naked, some people are in a form of rally, there are all sorts of colors and funny hats, and body paint, and mixing and matching. If you don’t have a good enough costume there are people and camps that are happy to gift you a better one, there are shops and boutiques where can find additions. I saw this idea a few times—but there were a few “infinite giving trees”—where people would leave any sort of gift. You could take one and leave some other odd item for the next person. People want to keep out of the shade, so you’ll see lots of hats. People want to protect their eyes from unexpected dust storms so you’ll see ski goggles to swim goggles to sun glasses and everything in between. You’ll see lots of scarves and dust masks. You can really wear whatever you want at Burning Man and fit in, and when I write that I actually mean it. You can even fit in wearing relatively normal clothing.
Another form of art is the bikes. Everyone is biking around at Burning Man. You can definitely walk around, and we did quite a bit of that and it allows you to really stop and see the different camps, but biking lets you cover a lot more territory. People decorate their bikes in extremely fun and creative ways as well. There’s lots of commonalities, like you see with the costumes, but also great variation. I saw lots of furry bikes, bikes with EL ( Electroluminescent) wire. Bikes with umbrellas or other shade. There were tiny bikes and tall bikes, tandem bikes, and bikes with huge wheels. Both the weirdness in the bikes and costumes had the common ground of being funky and practical.
You need lights to show up in the dark desert night, so people attach EL wire to themselves and their bikes. But this became an opportunity for creativity, a chance to create patterns or designs that were artistic in their own right.
You needed ways to keep the dust out, but the types of goggles or glasses people wore often recalled a different age.
Lots of the art stands out in that it is really interactive. Participation is a big theme at Burning Man, and when that is the default it opens up great creative opportunities. There were paintings you could paint, I saw a world map art piece that got contributions from people all over the world.
There was an interactive fire sculpture at the plaza near our camp that was pretty phenomenal. It was a flower-like metal sculpture that shot out fire, and could be controlled by different people as they pressed buttons to shoot out the fire at different times. (Reading a sentence like that, which is a pretty good attempt at describing the art piece, demonstrates that for many of the pieces you just need to see them).
There was a very large scale interactive art piece in the “playa” (which refers to the center of the desert) which was made up of lots of light blocks in the shape of a bunch of grapes that was controlled by a set of blocks on a table about twenty feet away that would create interesting neon light patterns based on the interactions of the blocks on the table.
There was a large moving sculpture that looked like lighted flowers that would open and close, with a place to sit at the base.
There was a collection of circular pads of light, maybe a few feet in diameter, and maybe a few hundred of them, that were all near each other like lily pads. You could jump on the pads and they would change their light pattern, but that would also depend on the overall current pattern of the lily pads.
When you see art cars, it makes you wonder why all cars aren’t art cars. Art car is a term of art at Burning Man, which is some decorated car that can drive around the playa at a speed of at most five miles an hour, often hosting dance parties or a bar, or just a crazy impressive way to get around. I think we hopped on dragon car one time, saw a dance party out of a custom built metal bee, saw all sorts of modified golf carts and buses in the shapes of everything from fish to bleachers to pirate ships to an octopus with flame throwers. (I think everything at Burning Man gets bonus points if it has flamethrowers.)
Burning Man revels in ironies and one of them is both its absurd extravagance and necessary minimalism. You do need to bring your own water and food. You need to build a shelter and some sort of shade. It is a “leave no trace” event and you need to pack out all of the garbage you brought in, down to water that gets dirty. In those respects it is even stricter than some camping trips. But then there is the opposite side, where people will construct huge camps, or cook elaborate food or build wacky experiences. So there is a survival and camping trip element, because you are in a very harsh environment in the desert that is usually baking in the day and very cold at night. But people approach it like a camping trip with a twist—an opportunity to be a lot more creative and in some elements really deck out the experience.
Why is it a social experiment?
Burning Man is a social experiment in the sense that the rules are suspended for a week, and people really do what they want and express themselves in all sorts of ways. It’s the realization of the hypothetical scenario you get when you ask: What if everyone was nice to each other? What if people didn’t use money? What if everyone just did their own thing and let others do their own thing? What if people just give random gifts to each other? What if everyone tries to participate and be present?
It really does lead to a wacky and wonderful alternate society.
Why is the idea that everyone is very friendly notable?
I think the idea that everyone is very friendly at Burning Man is notable for a few reasons. Mainly you notice this because it is in such contrast to the normal world. But this also means there is a virtuous cycle of everyone putting out good vibes. In cities, people rush heads down to the place they are going, never making eye contact with the strangers around them. People are in another world on their cell phones and headphones. Here people are present, all camps are open to others. People go out of their way to help you out, whether that is with tips for a first-time person or rushing to help if a bike falls down. People stop and greet, or talk to the random people they walk by. The lines are always a party and a friendly place to be on their own. Since everyone is friendly, it makes everyone else want to be friendly, and this has a huge positive compounding effect.
Moments at Burning Man
Here’s a few random moments from my experience at Burning Man that give you an idea of the lively and diverse feeling of the city.
- I’m jumping on a trampoline and not too long afterwards I’m playing guitar in a tent with a guy on bass, another on drums, and someone else playing xylophone while another girl sings.
- We climb up a ladder, and then slide down a full-out zipline with handles and a seat.
- It’s 2am in the middle of the deep playa and a charming older man has a hot dog cart where he is giving out hot dogs with perfectly toasted buns.
- There is a set of rings like a gymnastics gym, and adults and kids alike are swinging back and forth with cheers of the crowd to try to get to one end and back.
- Back near our camp, playing the game Kubb in the desert with our neighbors.
- A nearby camp gives out organic vegetables, and another makes pancakes.
- Being at center camp reminded me of what I imagine a bustling middle-eastern bazaar from thousands of years ago would have looked like. The density of the city leads to some interesting properties, but mainly that there are just so many people doing their thing. I was juggling, but there was a stage with poetry, a capella, spinning, yoga, art projects and more.
There’s not really one thing that boggled my mind about Burning Man. It did blow me away that one of our neighbors ran an ultra marathon 50k race in the baking desert heat. It did amaze me that people built such elaborate art sculptures as cars that became roaming dance parties. It did amaze me that no matter how much we’d wander and bike around there would still be much, much more to see.
So that is a little bit of what Burning Man is like. It is the whole event, the whole city, taken together which creates a gestalt experience that is not the sum of a music festival, an art festival, and a camping trip, but something wackier and much harder to explain.